It’s Alive, It’s Alive! : The Rise of Horror Movies in the 1930s-1950s

Posted by Liz T. on

classic universal monster movie posters

It’s spooky season, so we’ve been revisiting some of our old favorite movies about things that go bump in the night. Although classic horror movies like Dracula and Frankenstein may strike modern audiences as more campy than scary, many were technologically impressive at the time and have left a lasting impact on modern mythology even nearly a century later. Let’s take a quick look at how the horror movie genre changed from the 1930s to the 1950s.

The rise of the feature-length talkies, or movies with recorded dialogue in addition to sound effects and music, began in 1927 with The Jazz Singer. It didn’t take long for the horror genre to show up on the talky scene, with the first talking horror film being released just in time for Valentine’s Day of 1931. This movie left an indelible imprint on modern pop culture, provided the archetypical Vampire against which all others have been measured, and opened the door for the Golden Age of Horror.

This movie, of course, was Dracula, featuring Bela Lugosi in his most iconic role. Frankenstein followed a few months later, with the legendary Boris Karloff as the monster. This movie captivated audiences and is still regarded as one of the best movies ever made.

Keen to capitalize on the success of the Dracula & Frankenstein movies, sequels followed. Like modern sequels, most of them don’t quite live up to the standard set by the initial installment. However, there’s a notable exception in 1935’s Bride of Frankenstein, starring the expressive Elsa Lanchester. This movie has been hailed as one of the best sequels ever made and is still a solid movie in its own right. The 30s also introduced us to the Mummy, the Invisible Man, and of course, King Kong.


Hays Production Code Approval Certificate Title Screen

If you’re not familiar with the Hays Code, or the Motion Picture Production Code, you may be surprised by how tame the movies of the late 1930s seem when compared to the early part of the decade. All movies released in US theatres after July 1, 1934 had to comply with this codified list of immoral content and unacceptable topics. This was a reaction to the individual censorship of each film being done in different cities, as well as to the general public outcry and moral panic about some of the edgier pre-Code releases.

The general principles of the Hays Code banned the release of any motion picture that would “lower the moral standards of those who saw it.” Laws, both natural and human, had to be treated with respect, “correct standards of life” had to be shown, and portraying the sinner as sympathetic or the chaplain as corrupt was very risky. Restrictions were gradually relaxed from the late 40s onward, until the system was completely scrapped in the late 60s and replaced with a standardized rating system.


The Wolfman 1941

The 1940s brought in the Golden Age of Hollywood, as filmmakers adapted to the stricter guidelines by pivoting to creatively symbolic portrayals for sensitive topics. However, the horror genre in particular saw profit losses as moviegoers became less interested in the watered-down horror movies now permitted. This resulting budget cuts pushed the genre into B-movie territory, with lower production values and less acclaim attached. Universal gained a new monster with Wolfman, and also revisited the existing popular monsters through sequels, spin-offs, and “monster rally” mash-ups: The Mummy’s Ghost, The Son of Dracula, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, etc. While none of these individual films may have had the cultural impact of the originals, they successfully kept the characters part of the conversation and cemented their place in pop culture. 

The scary stories a society tells are a spotlight on what they fear the most. After the widely-reported “UFO Sightings” in the late 40s, movies involving aliens captured the audience’s imagination. The theme of “science as the enemy” or how science could be misused became a common thread in horror movies, with cautionary tales of unfortunate monsters or disasters created by radiation appearing weekly on a screen near you. As the world at large began to process the real-life horrors of WW2, the settings of horror movies shifted more to the here and now instead of the vaguely historical villages of earlier times.

R: A scene from House on Haunted Hill (1959); L: Emergo, a wire-controlled skeleton at a showing of House on Haunted Hill

The 1950s saw the rise of quickly-produced creature features: films created on shoestring budgets, given provocative titles, and aimed squarely at capturing the pocket money of the emerging teenage subculture. Innovative gimmicks such as 3D and Smell-o-Vision popped up to lure customers into the theatres and away from their shiny new television sets at home. A low-tech but effective scare gimmick was employed for House on Haunted Hill (1959), where a plastic skeleton was rigged up to swoop through the air just above the audience at a key point in the movie.

The enduring popularity of these classic horror movies is a testament to their creativity and the strength of the performances - and also to how much these stories still resonate with modern audiences. We still turn to fiction to process our fears and anxieties. Whether our fears revolve around new technologies or age-old human worries like loss and loneliness, we can still see aspects of ourselves in these films from almost a century ago, and we still feel a kinship with the monsters on our screens.

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